Believing in Labels; or Long-distance Travel, Hands On

I am somewhat of a ‘jacket potato,’ as my mother-in-law recently labelled a certain garden-variety of vegetables, soi-disant, that ostensibly thrive in domestic interiors.  A book-jacket potato, perhaps; but straitjacket comes to mind as well in these sport-jackets-are-for-hangers days of sitting none-too-pretty.  

Not that, in my case, being pomme-de-terrestrial is a recent development.  When I was a child, my mother-by-law used to admonish me for being what in my native tongue is called a Stubenhocker: someone not readily dissuaded from following an inclination not to venture beyond the threshold.

I was that all right; but persuading in other than laid hands-on ways was complicated by the fact that I grew up in one of the most unappealing and polluted parts of flat-as-tarmac North Rhine-Westphalia.  There’s a pre-industrial reference to that region in the opening paragraph of Candide, which the editors of Norton’s explain thus to the reader: ‘Westphalia is a province of western Germany, near Holland, and the lower Rhineland.  Flat, boggy, and drab, it is noted chiefly for its excellent ham.’  Voltaire himself, so the editors note, described the region as ‘vast, sad, sterile, detestable countryside.’  A frank enough assessment to cure any ham of homesickness.

Creating a new virtual home for myself was one of the projects this summer; and my Sitzfleisch (buttocks to you) was sorely tested as I was scanning items from my ephemera collection for online display.  Take these luggage labels, for instance, which I exhibited as part of my (Im)memorabilia exhibition back in 2014 and reserved another spot for in Travelling Through in 2018.  Their erstwhile collector, whose Latvia-to-London history of wartime displacement is still waiting to be told, probably did not visit most of these places and ‘palaces,’ but the labels may well have been a source of vicarious enjoyment as the trading of Glanzbilder – glossy pictures sold in sheets at the local kiosk for trading among pocket-money possessed youngsters – was for my former self in bleak Westphalia.

But I am in danger of veering off-topic, self-imposed and accommodating as it is.  I was speaking travel – a language that’s beginning to sound a lot like Latin.  There is so little of it this year that the aforementioned outing to Hay-on-Wye seemed like an exploratory mission to a Shangri-La of normalcy.  To think that, in 2019, I started out in Sydney and ended up in Lisbon, with extended visits to my old neighborhood in Manhattan and trips to Amsterdam, London, and Florence in between.  It’s the Stubenhocker in me that shall pull me through the pandemic; that, and lexical acrobatics.

I picked up some examples of these former suitcase adornments and searched online for the places they advertise.  Are any of them still operating, I wondered? Or might this year have dealt a final blow to yet another pile of real and conceptual bricks in the service of an industry that, for decades, naturalised and solidified our bourgeois divisions of home and abroad, work and leisure, of holiday and everyday?

Luggage label, Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral caught my eye – natch – and brought back memories of countless walks past that sooty Gothic spire rising next to the main train station that was my terminal for entering and exiting the ancient city of Köln.  It’s a sight that, decades later, became a lingering presence in my Gothic Imagination lectures – the cathedral, I mean, not the station, although, come to think of it, the back then equally sooty and rather more mysteries-filled and fantasy-fueling Hauptbahnhof haunts my teaching as well.

The Excelsior Hotel Ernst was – and is – about as likely a place for me to flop as is the Tomb of the Three Magi that is housed in the cathedral nearby.  The only five-star hotel in the old part of the city, it is so close to Dom, in fact, as to warrant its domination of the label design.  On its booking website, the establishment claims to have been privately owned since 1863; but the original building, which predates the 1880 completion of the permanent construction site that is the cathedral, was torn down in 1909.   Two decades later, the rebuilt hotel was reserved for the British army, which occupied it and much else besides until 1926.  Another two decades after that, it was still standing, albeit not without damage, having survived, like the battered Dom, the air raids of the Second World War.  And, yes, it weathered the economic fallout of COVID-19, opening again in May 2020 after a brief shutdown.  The fragile label, meanwhile, has lost little of its gloss.

Luggage label, Hotel Viking (now Hotel Royal Christiania), Oslo, Norway

Resisting my cultural conditioning – the notion of vacationing, in my German childhood, being associated with going down south – I picked up the label promoting the Hotel Viking in Oslo.  It opened in 1951, an influx of visitors being expected in 1952, the year Oslo hosted the Winter Olympics; it was the first year in which Germany (both East and West) were permitted to participate since Berlin hosted in 1936.  Norwegians were not likely to relish the idea of uniformed German delegates and their concomitant supporters invading their capital.  The label design frames the new site in a traditional context, suggesting that, even when viewed from more venerable landmarks, it is a sight to behold. The hotel, now called the Royal Christiania – thus declaring itself traditional by referencing the erstwhile name of the city – is still open for business. The label drives home that the hotel was modern by declaring it to be approachable by car; these days, advertisers are less likely to turn the parking space into a feature.

Luggage label, Hotel Wittebrug, Den Haag, Netherlands

Now, I have never been to Oslo; but on one of my most recent trips to the continent – if ‘recent’ is the word – my husband and I took the train from Amsterdam to spent a few hours in Den Haag, where I had never been until then.  I now lecture in landscape art, so seeing paintings of that genre right where they were created in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic was as thrilling to me as the fantasy of time travel, dismissed as such pictures were by eighteenth-century academics, and many now still under their influence, as prosaic.  However, I would have looked in vain for the Hotel Wittebrug, which was torn down in 1972.

The labels are the stuff of daydreams for me at the moment; but they certainly invite further research.  Who designed them, and when? How does the design correspond with, or misrepresent, the site depicted? It is a project for someone who, like me, does not believe in the label ‘fine art’ and is not dismissive of products of culture that, like seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, were commodities sold and bought on the market long before they ended up, removed from our everyday, in pay-to-enter venues set apart for our veneration of them and of the collections that now hold them.  

Handling these flimsy pieces of paper now, I am reminded most of all of what I am missing while the world is a world away.  Being out of touch does not quite feel as joyous when the sense of touch cannot be exercised occasionally by hugging an old friend or holding onto what seems more echt, or genuine, if it can be had, momentarily, for the holding …

Gotham/Gothic; or, A Tale of Two Strawberries

Visiting Strawberry Hill

Much of what I know about English literature I learned in the Bronx.  The peculiar indirection of my path—a German approaching British culture by taking the Lexington Avenue Express—did not escape me then; and even though I had no doubt as to the qualifications of those who taught me, I decided, upon finishing my Master’s thesis on the Scottish essayist-translator Thomas Carlyle, to go after something that, geographically speaking, lay closer to my temporary home. 

Never one for obvious choices, I wrote my doctoral study on US radio drama, a subject that, however arcane, struck me as being rather more compatible with life in a Mecca for the enthusiasts of American popular culture among which I numbered.  It also made it possible for me to take advantage of some of the resources particular to Manhattan, the isle of Radio City.

Not that I considered studying British culture so far removed from the Globe Theatre, the Scottish Borders, or the wilds of Yorkshire much of a disadvantage, being that I had adopted a subjective mode of reading that favors response over intention, that explores the reception of a written work rather than tracing is origins.  Call it rationalizing, call it kidding yourself—I thought that I should make a virtue of vicariousness. 

 
Living in Britain now, I am rediscovering its literature through the landscape rather than by way of the library; and I am finding my way back to those old books by stepping into even older buildings.  One such book and one such building is Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), otherwise known as Strawberry Hill.
 
A most un-Gothicbut gloriousday at Strawberry Hill

Originally a small cottage in rural Twickenham, Strawberry Hill was transformed by Walpole into a gothic castellino; it also housed the author’s own printing press, although Otranto was published in nearby London.  The crenelated battlements were made of wood and needed to be replaced more than once in Walpole’s lifetime.  “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole famously declared, “and both will blown away in ten years after I am dead.” This could well have happened; but, despite the relative weakness of his materials—a spurious medieval romance and the less than solid additions to Chopp’d Straw Cottage—both survive today as a testimony to Walpole’s enduring influence on popular tastes in architecture and literature.

 
And yet, however exciting the experience, walking around Strawberry Hill after all those years of living and studying so close to Strawberry Fields, Central Park, brought home nothing more forcibly than that getting to the heart of the matter that is art is not a matter of inspection but of introspection. Stripped of most of its furnishings, Strawberry Hill is a tease. Beyond the stained glass windows and the restored façade, there is little left of Walpole’s story or his antiquarian spirit.  To be sure, even if Walpole’s library had not been emptied of the contents that makes and defines it, it would remain inaccessible to those looking around now without being permitted to touch and turn the pages.

Visitors to historic houses, like readers of fictions, must always be prepared to supply the fittings, to construct in their mind’s eye what the supposedly first-hand experience of seeing for ourselves can never make concrete and, therefore, never quite smash or supplant.  Where, if not in our reading, dreaming, thinking selves does the spirit of literature reside?

The audio guide at Strawberry Hill is a self-conscious acknowledgment of this sightseeing conundrum; it plays like a radio drama—my studies of which have not gone to waste altogether—that teases us with the voices of the dead and the echoes of their footsteps. Our own footfall, meanwhile, is muffled by the protective plastic coverings provided for our shoes at the entrance to the site.

Walpole’s paper house has been given a permanence in the midst of which I am reminded of the paper-thinness of my own existence.  What lingers is the anxiety of leaving here—or anywhere—without having left a trace at all.

Down Memory Street; or, Thanks for the Sesame

The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket East Side, for crying not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in fur was of the Cookie Monster sort. Sesame Streetwas being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.

As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.

So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.

I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasseand the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor situation. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.

Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match.  Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.”  But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter, at least they didn’t during those days before Computers.

I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note.

Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups.

If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language.  By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression.

As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it.

Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.

Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself).  The neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .

Don’t Dress for Dinner: Six Characters in Search of a Round Table

The prosaically named American Airlines Theatre on Broadway has about as much intimacy and sex appeal as a departure lounge.  The long entrance hallway, which barely opens up to a space resembling the lobby of a two-star hotel, makes you feel that, once your ticket has been scanned, you are a mere hour’s worth of taxiing away from takeoff.  That said, it wasn’t the venue that made the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Don’t Dress for Dinner such a terminal bore.

Farces are all about frustrated desires, about wanting to take it off and waiting to get it on, about fooling around the longest way round and never quite getting around to it.  In this case, though, the exasperation I sensed was all mine.  As the characters got together for their scheduled assignations, the actors seemed to be heading off in different directions.  Watching them move around on the stage was about as scintillating as staring at other folk’s suitcases circling the baggage carousel, which aroused in me nothing but the suspicion that this was going to be a wearisome cat-and-spouse game indeed.
Not since Tony Randall’s 1991 production of The Crucible had I witnessed such a spilled ragbag of irreconcilable acting styles.  Their task being merrily to prolong the unwanted dinner party at the expense of hoped-for dessert spooning—and to make all this falling apart come together for us—the assembled cast members were in desperate need of a round table, not a dinner table, and a director, not a waiter, giving orders rather than taking them.
To be sure, Marc Camoletti play is no Noises Off; and the fact that I had seen Michael Frayn’s farce-to-end-all-farce only a few weeks earlier made Don’t Dress seem like a morning after.  Camoletti, best known for Boeing-Boeing was ill served by a translator whose lines are so threadbare (yes, cooker does rhyme with hooker) as to deserve nothing more than booing, booing.
The male leads, Ben Daniels as Robert and Adam James as Bernard came dressed for office, not play. A third male—make that macho—role was so indifferently cast that the ending, in which alone the character featured, fell as flat as postage stamp on a card reading “Wish I were anywhere but here.”
The ladies were livelier by far; but whereas classy Patricia Kalember as Jacqueline seemed to have expected a Noel Coward soiree, brassy Jennifer Tilly as Suzanne was fitted out for a Vegas dinner theater . . . or a romp with Chucky.  Meanwhile, the energetic Spencer Kayden as Suzette—who reminded me of Elizabeth Berridge and her role as the maid in the glorious if short-lived ‘90s sitcom satire The Powers That Be—brought to the proceedings a verve and a timing well suited to the inspired slapstick that Don’t Dress so desperately lacked.  Alas, you can’t have good comic timing all by yourself.
What you can have by yourself is the last laugh, scoffing at what elicited nary a chuckle in the first place.

The Lion in Winter Wonderland; or, What’s That Fir?

Once a year, in the run-up to Christmas, my better half and I make the seemingly interminable journey from Wales to London for some seasonal splurging on art and theater. Now, I don’t travel all the way east to the West End to waste my time on pap like Dirty Dancing. This isn’t snobbery, mind; I simply can’t thrill to a feast of re-processed cheese and the prospect of paying for it through a nose bigger than Jennifer Grey’s old one. Besides, why raid the bottom shelves of our pop cultural cupboard when I’ve got a heaping plateful of squandered opportunities to chew over? During the days of my graduate studies in English and American literature, I had little money to spare for Broadway theatricals, which is why I now tend to seek out revivals of plays I missed the first, second, or umpteenth time around—drama with some history to it, be that pedigree or baggage. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter has a bit of both.

As an added attraction, the current Theatre Royal Haymarket production also has the ever Ab-fabulous Joanna Lumley, whom I first saw on stage in the 2010 Broadway revival of La Bête. Lumley plays caged lioness Queen Eleanor opposite Robert Lindsay’s Henry II, the husband who keeps her under lock and key.  Witty and fierce, The Lion is a domestic drama fit for the tryingly festive season. All the same, the darn cat is in a confounded state of seasonal disorder.

What those stepping into the auditorium from the audio-visual onslaught that is Christmas time in the city cannot but gasp at is that even Henry’s halls are decked: his French chateau, anno 1183, features a regal Tannenbaum, no less. It certainly had my eyebrows raised to the alert level of WTF: you might expect a Green Knight, surely, but a bebaubled evergreen?

The proud Lion is prepared to pounce, though, ready to defend itself against “turbulent” critics crying bloody murder in the cathedral of culture. Goldman acknowledged that his “play contains anachronisms” such as the “way . . . Christmas is celebrated.” As he states in the notes duly reprinted in the playbill, the ahistorical trimmings are “deliberate”; “though it deals carefully with history,” The Lion “remains a piece of fiction.”

Towering over the assembled branches of Henry’s living family tree, the familiar, dead one serves as a reminder of the storyteller’s presence.  The needling transplant from our present day tells not only of the author’s intervening re-inventiveness but also of his obligation to make that past relevant: the dramatist does not simply stage history; he fashions it. To withhold evidence of this intervention would mean to falsify, to deny the hand and mind involved in the process of transcribing.

Goldman was nonetheless concerned that this never-evergreen might overshadow his research and cast doubt on his responsible interpretation of verifiable historical events. “This play,” he pointed out to his audience, “is accurately based on the available data.”

The elephant of a dislocated trunk aside, The Lion is refreshingly unself-conscious; it is a deluxe soap free from the by now irritating additives of postmodernist reflexivity. For all its modern day translations—of which only its pre-gay lib treatment of the 19th century construct of homosexuality struck me as dated—it affords a close look at historical figures that rarely seem human to us in the accounts of battles and political maneuverings.

If Goldman reduces the sweep of history to an intimate first-family portrait, he chose a subject that warrants such an approach; as historian John Gillingham argued, what “really mattered” to Henry II “was family politics,” in the belief of the failure of which he died. Far from being a Peyton Placeholder, Goldman’s “Christmas Court that never was” has been assembled to bring historical intrigue home.

Ladykillers Instinct; or, Marcia Warren’s Profession

“What’s your great online discovery,” an interviewer asked Marcia Warren, star of the current West End production of Ladykillers.  To this, the veteran of stage, screen and radio replied, “What does online mean?” It is just the kind of answer most of us expect—and want to hear—from someone past middle age, which makes hers such a sly response.  Warren remains in character, as Mrs. Wilberforce, kindly old landlady to the killers, giving us what we find so reassuring and endearing about the senescence we otherwise dread.  She may or may not be joking—but she sure has earned the right neither to know nor to care.  Looked at it that way, being past it becomes a shelter, a retreat beyond trends, updates and upgrades whose seeming simplicity appeals to those who cannot afford to be quite so nonchalant about technology, who feel the pressure of performing in and conforming to the construct of the present as a digital age.  Not to know or willfully to ignore—what luxury! Young and not-so-young alike find comfort in this deflecting mirror image of our future selves.  It’s a Betty White lie we use to kid ourselves .

We enjoy making light of old age; and those of us who have half a conscience enjoy it even more to be presented with elderly people or characters who are not simply the brunt of yet another ageist joke but are in on it—and cashing in on it as well.  We laugh all the way as they take our laughter to the bank.

We want older folks to be feisty because it comforts us to know that, even in our declining years, there are weapons left with which to fight, however futile the fighting.  The middle aged, by comparison, are past the prime against which the standard their looks and performances are measured; it is their struggle to conceal or deny this obsolescence that makes them the stuff of deflationary humor.  We don’t laugh at Mrs. Wilberforce; we laugh at the bumbling crooks whose willfulness is no match for her force shield of insuperable antiquity.

It is this nod to nostalgia as a weapon against the onslaught of modernity that makes Ladykillers such a charmer of a story.  And what makes it work on the stage just as it works on the screen is that the 1955 original requires no update: the Ladykillers was born nostalgic.  It hit the screens—in fabulous Technicolor, no less—at a time when, after years of postwar austerity, the British were ready to look back in amusement at their wants and desires and all those surreptitious attempts to meet them.  Sneers turned to smiles again as greed was finally being catered to once more.

Eluding those who try to will it by force, fortune winks at those who wait like Mrs. Wilberforce, a senior citizen yet hale, clearheaded and driven enough to enjoy a sudden windfall.  It is a conservative fantasy that appealed then as it appeals now, especially to middleclass, middle-aged theatergoers eager to distract themselves from banking woes and pension fears, from cybercrime and urban riots.

Familiar to me from radio dramatics, Warren’s name was the only one on the marquee I recognized as I decided whether or not take in what I assumed to be another one of those makeshift theatricals that too often take the place of real theater these days—stage adaptations of popular movies, books and cartoons like Shrek, Spider-Man, or Addams Family with which the theater world is trying rather desperately to augment its aging audience base. Written by Graham Linehan and directed by Sean Foley, this new production of The Ladykillers fully justified its staging.  There is much for the eye to take in; indeed, it owing to an able cast—and the lovely, lively Ms. Warren above all— to prevent the ingenious set and special effects from stealing this caper.

In the real, honest-to-goodness make-believe beyond the online trappings of which she claims to be ignorant, Warren gives us just what we want.  After all, acting for our pleasure and acting out our desires is her business.  It’s the oldest profession in the world.

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

". . . in fire and blood and anguish”: An Inspector Calls Repeatedly

As I was saying: what is wanting here is continuity, some sort of story on the go, a sense of goings-on ongoing, of the so on and so on and so on. It would be laziest to claim, as I have done, that what prevents me from turning a seemingly random clipbook into the attraction that is the yet to come is largely owing to the kind of clippings for which this (mis)nominal journal is reserved. Instead of looking ahead, I keep on hearkening back. As I recall, which is what my kind of introspective retrospection calls for, my life always seemed to unfold in hindsight, not so much enveloped as developing. I know better than to regard history as a series of acts perpetrated rather than ideas perpetuated—but that knowledge does not prevent me from living ahistorically. According to J. B. Priestley, I am bound to regret this.

For the most part, mine has been a life apart; many are the instances, momentous events even, in which I just was not in the moment. What was I feeling when the Berlin Wall fell? My diary won’t tell you. It only refers to the event in passing—and with detachment—as something that would have been “noch for kurzem undenkbar” (unthinkable even a short time ago). “Undenkbar,” perhaps, since I had never given it much thought.

I recall being revolted by David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for Freedom,” a 1989 chart topper all over Europe, but was not aware that the song’s popularity was owing to political events then in the making, let alone that Hasselhoff was part of the revolution (as claimed, with tongue firmly in cheek, in a current BBC Radio 2 retrospective). I never made the connection. Nothing seemed to connect, least of all with me. My existence, as I saw it, was coincidental and inconsequential.

It is not for nothing that my generation was known as the “no future” generation. Life in the Western middle of Europe was, to many, solely dependent on the whim or disposition of two world leaders, on a red telephone, and a scientist’s finger on a long-range missile switch.

I came briefly into contact with my past self when, on a recent weekend in London, I looked into the fresh faces of my nieces, whom I had not seen in over twelve years since I steadfastly refuse to set foot again on German soil. I never did make peace with my native country, and, as much as I enjoy a good Schlachtplatte (literally, a battle or slaughter platter, which is a dish of assorted meats), I’d much rather rely on German exports than return to the scene of inner turmoil.

The belated realization that, growing up in the Rhineland, I had never witnessed a celebration of Armistice Day, seen a World War I memorial (of which there is one in nearly every village here in Britain) or witnessed the annual spectacle of lapels sprouting poppies, only deepened my suspicion that it was the shame of defeat that rendered causality ineffective in a post-1918 German construct of history, and that what was being commemorated elsewhere was victory rather than the failure to insure it.

As the fatalism expressed in the grating conclusion of the most recent installment in The Final Destination series of disaster horror suggested to me, causality without social or moral responsibility is a mere exercise in predictability. “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and glood and anguish.” J. B. Priestley keeps saying as much in An Inspector Calls, the previously maligned 1990s production of which I caught again on said trip to London a few weeks ago.

“You’ve a lot to learn yet,” pragmatic and presumably self-made Mr. Birling advises the younger generation, anno 1912.

And I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business. And I say there isn’t a chance of war. The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible. Look at the progress we’re making [. . .]. Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week—the Titanic—she sails next week—forty-six thousand eight hundred tons—and every luxury—and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. That what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that—and not a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing. Now you three young people, just listen to this—and remember what I’m telling you now. In twenty or thirty years’ time—let’s say in 1940, you mighty be giving a little party like this—your son or daughter might be getting engaged—and I tell you by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere—except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.

Mr. Birling is blind not only to the signs of the time but also to his responsibilities in designing the future while consigning the present to waste and ruin. Even when given the chance in Priestley’s fantastic setup, he is incapable of turning hindsight into insight. Knowledge, after all, is not synonymous with understanding. As much as I keep rejoicing in Mr. Birling’s fall—a delight dimmed by the knowledge that his is our downfall by proxy—logic dictates that I fall well short of understanding the consequences of my own ahistorical ways.


Related writings
An Inspector Calls Our Bluff’
‘Consider the Poppies’
‘Now on the Air: War Poems to Recall and Remind’
‘Memorials War; or, Names Are Dropped Faster Than Guns’

Night Bus; or, What Nearly Didn’t Happen

”Go where the hell ever you want. But get that word ‘bus’ outta the title. It’s poison.” That is what Harry Cohn told Frank Capra when the director declared that his next picture would be Night Bus, the comedy we now know as It Happened One Night. I have to agree with Mr. Cohn as to the toxicity of said vocable. After my recent trip to Budapest, “bus” has become a four-letter word in my lexicon, spelling b-u-s-t. The night bus that was supposed to transport us from Wales to England never even turned up. There we stood, in the wind and the rain, wondering how on earth we would get to Luton (about four and a half hours eastward) to catch the early morning flight to the Hungarian capital.

There were about fifty of us, waiting not only for the chartered vehicle but also anticipating the violent storm that was to batter the coastline and move, along with us, to the continent. It was well past 11 PM when we somehow—and, quite miraculously, given our remote location—managed to hire an alternative coach. Little did we know that, when we finally got underway around 0:30 AM, that that heaven-sent conveyance would end up sputtering along at 10 mph—on the highway, no less—and give up the ghost in its machine halfway through the journey. We missed our flight and spent five hours at a truck stop making twelfth-hour arrangements to get all of us to Budapest. Amazingly, we did secure another flight from another airport, to which the bus, now repaired, transported us. We arrived at our destination some ten hours behind schedule—too late to enjoy the boat trip on the Danube planned for the afternoon. Our hotel, we discovered, was a converted psychiatric hospital; the folks in charge of making the building fit for its new purpose needn’t have gone through what didn’t look to have been all that much trouble. I, for one, was ready to be institutionalized.

Riding a bus—or missing and waiting for same—is about as enchanting as the prospect of digging a plastic fork into a fast food dinner. Hollywood caught on quick, romancing the railroad instead. As I took time to explore in an undergraduate essay “Ladies in Loco-motion: The Train Motif in the Romantic Comedies of Claudette Colbert” (previously mentioned here), that romance commenced as early as 1895—merely a quarter of a century after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America—when the Lumière Brothers, showing their “Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station” at the first public movie theater in Paris, discovered that the tracks and the camera were indeed made for each other. Sure, some spectators left screaming—but most came back for more.

In 1903, motion picture pioneer Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery revolutionized American film, since it led to the discovery that, as Ian Hamilton put it, “movies were not just ‘motion photographs’: they could indeed tell stories, defy the unities, move compellingly from A to B.” Bound and gagged beauties left to expire on the tracks, inexorable engines speedily approaching, and courageous heroes dashing to the rescue are quintessential images and sequences of both silent-screen melodrama and comedy.

As moviemaking and film narrative became more sophisticated, the plot-propelling and symbolic potentialities of the Iron Horse—from the far-off soundings of its prophetic whistle to close-ups of its powerful wheels—were explored and exploited in virtually every emerging genre, in mystery (Strangers on a Train) and musical (The Harvey Girls), in film noir (Double Indemnity) and war actioner (The Train), in Western (Union Pacific) and weeper (Brief Encounter).

To Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s, train rides, from the daily commute on the el to adventurous journeys on the Twentieth Century, proved vital as well, with trains and stations serving as unstable, mobile communities or pervious social settings in which relationships are as readily forged as foreshortened, as easily enhanced as escaped. At once liberating and restricting in their scheduled, track-shackled predictability, distinctly modern, pragmatic and everyday, yet steeped in pre-automotive nostalgia, episodes in transit seem ideally suited to a comic rendering of the primal and perpetual boy-meets-girl plot, in which the lovers’ temporary separation, emotionally as well as physically, is an essential device. Consequently, Hollywood’s romantic comedy and its wilder, wackier subgenre, the Hays Office dodging screwball, make ample use of departures, arrivals, and escapades en route.

For all its influence on screwball, It Happened One Night did little to get the bus rolling again; perhaps, the crammed coach began to smell too much of a New Deal gone sour. Bus travel wasn’t so much democratic as socialist, the freedom of the road curtailed by the invisible tracks that are the prescribed route. On the train, at least, the classes could be compartmentalized, and there was ample room for glamour as well as hobo nonconformity. According to Emanuel Levy’s And the Winner Is . . ., even the success story of Capra’s Night Bus concludes with a real-life train incident. Claudette Colbert, not having expected to pick up a trophy for her role as Ellie Andrews,

was boarding the Santa Fe train to New York when she was announced winner. The Santa Fe officials held up the train and she was taken by taxi to the ceremonies at the Biltmore Hotel. “I’m happy enough to cry,” she said, ‘but I can’t take the time to do so. A taxi is waiting outside with the engine running.”

The bus driver did not wait for Miss Andrews. And he drove his vehicle into a muddy ditch, too. Is it any wonder the runaway heiress was such an expert hitchhiker? Buses! Imagine the joys of our shaky return trip, during which the coach’s anti-roll bar fell off and dragged noisily on the road like so many cans proclaiming “Just Married.” Hardly a marriage of convenience, it certainly was no romance . . .

Things Eve Peabody Taught Me

Well, it is the “Little Paris of Middle Europe.” At least that’s how our newly arrived Eyewitness Travel Guide introduced me to the city of Budapest. Since I am about to visit the Hungarian capital, I’ve been flicking the pages to get acquainted with the place, its people, and its language; but whenever I find myself in need of cultural initiation I go about it in a roundabout way, with a stopover in Hollywood. Or Paris. You know, the really big Paris to the West of Middle Europe.

You can really learn a lot from old Hollywood movies, as long as you don’t get taken in or turned off by fake sets and phony accents. Take Mitchell Leisen’s 1939 screwball romp Midnight, for instance, and profit from the experience of American adventuress Eve Peabody (as portrayed by Claudette Colbert, whose career was the recent topic of an Alternative Film Guide discussion). Eve’s story, the gist of which you can follow in this recording of a Lux Radio Theater adaptation broadcast on 20 May 1940, will teach you a thing or two about traveling on a budget of little more than a centime with a hole in it, about crashing a society party with a pawn ticket, and about the perils of unwittingly impersonating a Hungarian baroness—practical stuff not generally covered by Baedekers.

Now, as the previous entry into this journal will tell you, I have just been in the company of a true Hungarian baroness last night, one with an accent to prove at least the Hungarian part of her past. The misleading lady Eve, on the other hand, has to work somewhat harder to hoodwink her way out of the hood (in her case, the Bronx). After suffering a “nasty accident” in Monte Carlo (“The roulette system I was playing collapsed under me”), down-and-out Eve is forced to depend on little more than her wits, her sex appeal having gotten her into too much trouble already.

She takes the name of the first person she met in Paris, one Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a Hungarian cabbie who’s been rather too eager to chauffeur her around town in her futile attempt to land a gig as a nightclub singer. “I guess, mine is strictly a bathtub voice,” she concludes, and makes a swift exit before Tibor can make good on his offer of taking her home. “No woman ever found peace in a taxi. I’m looking for a limousine.” However much she really likes the guy, it’s dough, not romance, that this dame is after.

At the swanky soiree onto which she happens when dodging those driving forces (the Hungarian, the rain, and the subconscious), the Czerny handle proves somewhat of a liability. The assembled high society assumes Eve to be one of the Czernys—a baroness, no less. And while it proves a breeze for Eve to slide around the foreign angle by alleging to be a Czerny by marriage, not birth, she slips on a treacherous bit of trivia and soon blows her cover.

When asked about that “most enchanting” city of Budapest, where she claims to have left her ailing husband, the baron, she is dealt a trick question about the town’s famous subway. “Did they ever finish that?” a guest at the dull get-together she’s managed to infiltrate inquires. “The streets are still a little torn up,” she responds, rather flustered. Her inquisitor did not need to hear any more to know this Eve from Adam. The Budapest metro, after all, is one of the oldest subways in the world, and Miss Peabody is little more than an impersonatrix eager to get away from a past that involved being squeezed each day into the Bronx local.

According to Hollywood justice, Eve gets away with it all . . . and walks away on the arm of Czerny to boot. In fact, having gotten it wrong works out all right for her. History, geography, facts and figures—none of that matters, Midnight suggests, as long as you’ve got beauty, charm and moxie. Considering that I still know so little about my destination, and a gold lamé gown like Eve’s does so little to enhance whatever charm I might have, I’d better cram plenty of moxie into that duffle bag of mine.